How a Contract Furniture Expert Sees the Evolving Workplace

How a contract furniture expert sees the evolving workplace

Earlier this year, six knowledgeable and opinionated people gathered in our small conference room at Metropolis to judge the Workplace of the Future Design Competition we co-sponsored with Business Interiors by Staples. I moderated the lively discussion that stretched through the day and ended with a celebratory toast of prosecco to all 218 entrants, and the three projects that rose to the top.

The experts on our panel of judges included an industrial designer (Jonas Damon, creative director for frog), a workplace strategy and design specialist (Nona Gross of Siemens Corporation), an interior architect (Tom Krizmanic, principal at STUDIOS Architecture, NY), corporate real estate expert (Paul Darrah of Bridgewater Associates), and a magazine editor (Paul Makovsky, our editorial director at Metropolis). But the judge who was the most reserved among this rambunctious group, and who had the most interest in the competition’s outcome was John Michael, a 25-year veteran in contract furniture, and vice president, general manager of Furniture at Business Interiors by Staples. So I decided to get him to break his silence, talk about his impressions of the competition, and what it revealed about the future of work as this future relates to the world-wide sales organization that is Business Interiors by Staples.

Runner-Up CoLAB by Teun van den Dries, Frank van Haalen, Britt Brijder, Sander Mulders, Pauline Quast of Eckhart

Courtesy Eckhart

Susan S. Szenasy: You, John, more than the other judges, had a real business agenda when you decided to sponsor the Workplace of the Future Design Competition. What were your initial hopes for the competition and what did you come away with after that intense day of judging earlier this year?

John Michael: From the start, our entire organization was really excited about the competition sponsorship. We have great respect for the longevity of Metropolis and the role that the publication has played in the support of Architecture, Culture, and Design over the years. In terms of a business agenda, Business Interiors by Staples has a unique and compelling story to tell. And our business has evolved and matured significantly over the past several years. We need to do a better job of sharing our message, and we viewed the competition sponsorship with Metropolis as a way to demonstrate our appreciation for the work that architects and interior designers do each and every day.

The day of judging was, as you said, quite intense…but it was also an absolute blast! The combination of the quality of the submittals and an outstanding panel of judges made the day enjoyable and inspiring. My big take away was that you can really begin to see a number of key design themes converging like never before…and the result is truly innovative thinking and great design.

Honorable Mention NEXUS: The Locomotion of Business by Sara Willhoite, Angie Tjisnoyo, Matthew Ford, Mina Lee of The University of Cincinnati

Courtesy Sara Willhoite

SSS: Does Business Interiors by Staples have some sort of post-occupancy study in place, in other words, do you find out what works and what doesn’t work after the space has been occupied for a year or so? If yes, can you give some examples of lessons learned. If no, would it be useful to work with more knowledge about how workers use their spaces?

JM: Successful projects are the result of highly detailed programming efforts and strategic plans that embrace a broad range of team players.  We have in place a process to manage post occupancy surveys and the lessons learned are shared both internally and externally with the customer.

Business models change and design solutions must be flexible and fluid to adapt to the business evolution. It is very common for our customers to tweak the second-generation design based on the lessons learned. As a result, better standard, “typical” solutions evolve that simplify the design process while making it easier for the facilities and real estate decision makers to manage furniture assets.

Finalist The ANYPLACE by Christopher Goggin, Paul Manno, Jean Wallace, Lindsey Matthias, Ashley Rose, Stephen Walsh, Francisco Barron, Gracie Andraos, Katie Christensen, Mark Harder, and Michael Cerda of Gensler, Dallas

Courtesy Gensler Dallas

SSS: Your collaborators at Allsteel do some very revealing work-pattern studies, which help them design the next generation of office furniture. In your 25 years of watching the office market, what do you see as the biggest catalyst to change today? I mean the kind of change that is forcing a reassessment of 20th century ways of furnishing for working.

JM: I believe that the biggest catalyst is the explosion of mobile technology over the past five years. Combine those mobile technologies with the influx of ‘digital natives’ entering the workforce and you have a real recipe for frame-breaking change in the nature of work and the environments that support work.

Finalist PopUP: The Rise of the Mobile Worker and the use of Vacant Space by Kathryn Costa and Kathryn Haley of The University of Cincinnati

Courtesy Kathryn Costa

SSS: Many Business Interiors by Staples clients are aware of the current trends in office design: managers in workstations, collaborative areas, small-group conference spaces, telecommuting options, etc. In light of all these concepts, now commonplace in workplace design, what struck you as the most innovative move you saw while judging the Workplace of the Future competition?

JM: First of all, I thought the quality of the submittals was outstanding. The creativity, talent, and critical thinking that went into many of the entries were inspirational. I was most intrigued by one of the themes that emerged…that being the creation of shared workspaces in urban settings open to workers from different organizations. That one theme seemed to combine elements of urban renewal, environmental stewardship, collaboration (perhaps even with someone unrelated to your project!), and leveraging mobile technology.

Finalist Live/Work Platforms by Scott Klinker, Site Li, Mike Devereaux, and Ryan Pieper of Scott Klinker Product Design

Courtesy Scott Klinker Product Design

SSS: The most interesting solutions in the competition took a look at the buildings themselves, not simply the furniture. This kind of systems thinking is in the air. What, in your estimation, will this shift to include the container, not just the content, in office design mean to the way Business Interiors by Staples works with its clients?

JM: I think it reinforces the notion that all of the disciplines involved in creating effective spaces need to be collaborating much earlier in the process, which needs to become less linear and more parallel. In an ideal setting, clients would select all members of the project team at the same time, eliminating the arms-length relationships we often experience today, given that the competitive selection processes for the spots on the project team take place at various times during the project timeline.

Second, I think including the buildings themselves in the thought-process greatly expands the possible solutions for clients…it provides a much larger canvas on which to create optimal work settings.

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